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Is Gentrification All Bad?

Artists are like most people: They think gentrification is fine so long as it stops with them. They are pioneers, all-accepting enthusiasts, and they wish to change nothing about their new home turf (although a halfway decent tapas place would be nice). The next arrivals, though, will be numerous and crass. Interlopers will ruin everything. As artists migrate across the boroughs, from the East Village to Williamsburg, Red Hook, Bushwick, and Mott Haven, surfing a wave of rising rents, they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of gentrification.

Rosado understands these dynamics well, but he believes that a little local involvement can go a long way toward shaping the subtleties of neighborhood change. “You can’t stop development and growth, but we’d like to have a say in how that transition takes place.” Lurking in that plain statement is the belief that gentrification happens not because a few developers or politicians foist it on an unwilling city but because it’s a medicine most people want to take. The trick is to minimize the harmful side effects.

In the popular imagination, gentrification and displacement are virtually synonymous, the input and output of a zero-sum game. One professional couple’s $2 million brownstone renovation in Bedford-Stuyvesant equals three families drifting toward Bayonne in search of barely adequate shelter. And so a sense of grievance and shame permeates virtually all discussions of neighborhood change. Even gentrifiers themselves are convinced they are doing something terrible. Young professionals whose moving trucks keep pulling up to curbs in Bushwick and Astoria carry with them trunkfuls of guilt.

The link between a neighborhood’s economic fortunes and the number of people being forced to move away, while anecdotally obvious, is difficult to document. Everyone’s heard stories of brutally coercive landlords forcing low-income tenants out of rent-controlled apartments in order to renovate them and triple the rent. But it’s difficult to know how often that takes place. Between 2009 and 2011, about 7 percent of New York households—around 200,000 of them—moved within the city in each year. Others left town altogether. Yet we know little about where they went, or why, or whether their decisions were made under duress.

Among experts, a furor continues to swirl over whether gentrification and displacement are conjoined. What qualifies as displacement, anyway? Forcible eviction by a rapacious landlord, obviously, but what about a rent that creeps up while a household’s income doesn’t? How about the intangible, dispiriting feeling of being out of place, or a young person’s knowledge that leaving the family home means living in another borough? Or the dislocation that comes when an industry flees, taking its jobs along? These pressures can affect investment bankers and nurses, as well as busboys and the unemployed, and it’s not always easy to distinguish coerced departure from a fresh opportunity, or gentrifiers from the displaced.

In 2005, Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia, examined national housing statistics to see whether low-income residents move more often once their neighborhoods start to gentrify. His conclusion was that they don’t. Mobility, he suggested, is a fact of American life, and he could find no evidence to suggest that gentrification intensifies it. Instead, it appears that many low-income renters stay put even as their rents go up. “It may be that households are choosing to stay in these neighborhoods because quality of life is improving: They’re more satisfied, but they’re dedicating a larger slice of their income to housing,” says Ingrid Gould Ellen, co-director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. There is an exception: Poor homeowners who see the value of their properties skyrocket often do cash out. Freeman garnished his findings with caveats and qualifications, but his charged conclusion fueled an outbreak of headlines that have dogged him ever since.

Eight years after he lit the gentrification-is-good-for-everyone match, Freeman sits in his office at Columbia, more resigned than rah-rah about the implications of his work. He doesn’t doubt that displacement occurs, but he describes it as an inevitable consequence of capitalism. “If we are going to allow housing to be a market commodity, then we have to live with the downsides, even though we can blunt the negative effects to some extent. It’s pretty hard to get around that.”

That infuriates the British scholar Tom Slater, who sees Freeman’s data studies as largely irrelevant because, he has written, they “cannot capture the struggles low-income and working-class people endure to remain where they are.” Freeman waves away the binary rhetoric. “You can’t boil gentrification down to good-guy-versus-bad-guy. That makes a good morality play, but life is a lot messier than that.” In the days when RFK was helping to launch Restoration, an ideological split divided those who wrote cities off as unlivable relics from those who believed they must be saved. Today, a similar gulf separates those who fear an excess of prosperity from those who worry about the return of blight. Economic flows can be reversed with stunning speed: Gentrification can nudge a neighborhood up the slope; decline can roll it off a cliff. Somewhere along that trajectory of change is a sweet spot, a mixed and humming street that is not quite settled or sanitized, where Old Guard and new arrivals coexist in equilibrium. The game is to make it last.